That said, it doesn’t mean that programs can’t be implemented to shift police priorities and share duties with other specialists, like mental health professionals, to respond to carefully screened 911 calls.
Now wait before you react. I’m not talking about sending out a lone social worker on a potentially dangerous call or cutting the number of officers on the street. This is about thoughtfully pairing the two forces as a first responder team. It’s about recognizing that there are eight million people in this country struggling with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, to say nothing of all the other mental health maladies, and most police officers are simply not trained to deal with them.
Society has unfairly foisted the duty of managing the mentally unstable upon police, coinciding with a glut of street guns and ill-conceived bail reforms, and it is way past time to lift some of the burden off these officers.
In Houston, the sheer size of the county is a hindrance to a timely team response, so 150 officers are equipped with iPads that instantly put them in touch with specialists at their Center for Mental Health. When confronted with someone in mental distress the officer can get real time advice on how to handle the situation.
An assessment of the Houston program, which began in 2017, found that remote help from behavioral experts allowed officers to come to an on-scene resolution in 42% of mental health calls. Other subjects were safely sent to an emergency room or psychiatric hospital and only two were taken to jail.
The success of this team approach is encouraging especially when you consider that about a quarter of all those shot and killed by police each year are mentally ill citizens experiencing a crisis.
So, that’s one idea to modernize policing. Another has been tried and tested in Eugene, Oregon for decades.
Thirty years ago, officials in Eugene dared to try something different. After realizing how much time officers were spending responding to non-violent calls involving someone sleeping in a park, dumpster diving behind a luxury building or a homeless person acting strangely they decided to refocus efforts. They created the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Street program, CAHOOTS for short. It has freed up police officers to concentrate on serious crimes.
CAHOOTS has a mobile van staffed with a medic (an EMT or registered nurse) and an experienced crisis worker. They don’t wear uniforms, which can heighten fear among the mentally ill, and they are trained to mediate tense situations. They are most often called upon to respond to suicidal subjects, intoxicated or disorderly people or requests for a welfare check. Most importantly, the city’s 911 operators are specially trained to determined when a CAHOOTS team can be safely dispatched instead of a squad car. In 2019, CAHOOTS teams responded to more than 18,580 calls that otherwise would have diverted police officers. And they do it for a fraction of the cost of sending in sworn law enforcement.
This is a big deal, and the CAHOOTS idea has spread to places as diverse as Denver, Colorado and New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Whenever the powers that be can compassionately respond to the mentally ill and, at the same time, reduce the strain on overworked cops, it is a win-win. A 2017 study from the Treatment Advocacy Center showed police officers spent 21% of their time responding to or transporting people with mental illness at a cost that year of $918 million. I’m betting the figures are even higher now considering the emotional effects of the pandemic.
Look, the idea of simply stripping millions of dollars from police departments, with no concrete plans for how to deal with the shortfall of first responders, is a recipe for disaster. The CAHOOTS model shows us a tested and proven way forward. Every mayor, police chief and community activist should take notice.